Samira Wiley Says Goodbye To Poussey

by Kayleigh Hughes

After four years of seeing her play the widely beloved character of Poussey Washington on Netflix's Orange is the New Black, fans are still stinging over (spoiler alert!) Samira Wiley's departure from the show. Poussey's death was perhaps the most powerful and devastating moment the series had seen, and it sparked important conversations about police brutality, race, and the prison system. It also meant that many fans' favorite character — and one of the strongest players in an enormously strong cast — would be leaving the show, a fact that broke fans' hearts. Yet perhaps no one has felt the impact more than the actor herself.

"Sometimes it really hurts," Wiley tells Bustle about no longer being part of OITNB. "Sometimes it’s hard to think about, especially knowing that they’re filming Season 5 right now."

Wiley describes her departure from Orange is the New Black as "bittersweet," saying that the show, its cast, and its characters have really become a part of her. "I feel like I know Poussey better than I know my best friend," she explains. But she says she's also feeling "liberated" by the chance to take on new roles that allow her to grow and make a name for herself as a versatile and ambitious actor, adding, "I think that, when playing a character for that long, a lot of people begin to see you as not Samira but Poussey."

Wiley's new role in the thrilling historical drama 37, about the real-life murder of Kitty Genovese in 1964, which occurred in front of dozens of witnesses, will certainly have fans seeing her differently. In the film, out Oct. 7, Wiley plays Joyce Smith, a young wife and mother who moves with her family into Genovese's apartment complex on the day that the young woman is murdered. A pregnant Joyce, her husband Archibald (played by Michael Potts), and their young son Troy are the only black residents of the complex, and they face consistent explicit and implicit racism as they attempt to make a new home for themselves.

And though the film is based off of the true events of Genovese's murder, the characters it follows, Wiley says, are fictional representations meant to convey the collective experience of the bystander effect. She adds that by following the personal lives of three families including the Smiths, who witness a horrific crime but do nothing to stop it, the film asks the question, "what gets in the way of us making the leap to help our fellow man?"

Despite portraying a fictional character, Wiley says she was able to learn about the setting and the people involved from speaking with those who were alive during the events of 1964. "I talked to a lot of people who were around [when Genovese was murdered]," she says. "Whether they lived in Queens at the time or whether they lived in other parts of New York, it seems like one of those events that just resounded." Director Puk Grasten and the rest of the cast and crew were able to film just a few blocks from the site of the real events. Adds Wiley, "I feel really lucky to be in the area where it happened and talk to people who were around."

The actor says she hopes that, like with Orange is the New Black, 37 will start "open and honest conversation" about important issues, seeing that it has resonance in today's society. The movie has the power to show the ways that society has improved, she explains, but also "to point out the things that are exactly the same, the feelings that are the same, the prejudice that’s the same." Says Wiley, "This is definitely an issue that is still going on — when do we speak up, when is it more important to speak up than to give in to our fears."

Wiley's heartfelt turn as Joyce is a highlight in the film, and she tells me with a laugh that she's eager to continue playing "lots and lots and lots of different kinds of characters," in her career. "In a way, I just want to be the ingenue and the character actor, I just want to be it all," she says. "I’m probably a little too ambitious but those are my dream. " Her impressive list of credits suggests that this is not too ambitious at all, but rather a fitting plan for a talented and determined actor. Wiley's upcoming role as Moira in 2017's The Handmaid's Tale sounds like it will be another exciting opportunity for her. She describes the character as "an amazing, quick-witted, profane force," who is best friends with protagonist Offred. Played by Elisabeth Moss, Offred is "the one that just keeps Offred going," Wiley says.

Clearly, Wiley is on track to have a long and successful career; she tells me that her dream role is to be Juliet in a Shakespeare stage production. Still, there will always be a place in her heart for Orange is the New Black, she says, explaining, "I wouldn’t be where I am today without it." That may be true, but fans are looking forward to seeing Wiley's post-Poussey career grow in television, film, and beyond.

Image: LevelK